Shortly after the horrific December 2012 attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that left 20 children and six adults dead, the New Jersey School Boards Association convened a School Security Task Force to study the question: What else must be done to ensure the safety and security of schoolchildren?

The task force met several times over the next year, hearing from experts in law enforcement, school security, emergency planning, school design and social-emotional learning. The result was the 2014 report, What Makes Schools Safe, which included 45 recommendations on subjects ranging from police in schools, to “target hardening” and school climate. The report has guided discussion of student safety at school board meetings and at county and regional forums.

In early 2018, after another tragic school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, the Association formed a new committee to review the 2014 report. The study considered developments in legislation, security personnel, technology, emergency preparedness, and school climate. The group released the update to the report on Oct. 23, and presented the findings at Workshop 2018. The report can be found online here.

Upon its review of What Makes Schools Safe?, the committee concluded that the 2014 report remains a viable document with valuable information for school districts and relevant recommendations. Nonetheless, the committee found that, since the release of the 2014 report, several developments have occurred which warrant additional recommendations involving state and federal policy, action by the New Jersey School Boards Association and best practices by local school districts.

Developments Since 2014 The first part of the report addressed developments in school security that have occurred since the release of the original task force study.

  • NJSBA was represented on the state’s own security task force, which issued its report in 2015. That study cited NJSBA’s work. Its recommendations address building design, access procedures, staff training and emergency communication and notification.
  • In August 2015, there was a revised Uniform State Memorandum of Agreement Between Education and Law Enforcement Officials. First issued in 1988, the Uniform State Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) is developed by the state Attorney General’s Education and Law Enforcement Working Group, on which NJSBA is represented. The document serves as the template for agreements between school districts and local law enforcement agencies. The local agreements define the obligations of the schools, police and other emergency responders during security threats, natural and man-made disasters, and unlawful activities. The 2015 revision includes sections on new state laws, as well as existing statute deemed relevant to a safe school environment. Subjects include cyber-harassment, hazing, the coordination of HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) investigations and criminal investigations, and the expansion of the use of Juvenile Justice Committees as an alternative to adjudication in matters involving alleged juvenile offenders. (In January 2019, the state Attorney General and the New Jersey Commissioner of Education approved a revised MOA. The new document can be viewed here).
  • In 2016, a statute created a new category of law enforcement officers for the schools. The Class III Special Law Enforcement Officer represents a cost-effective alternative to placing an active duty school resource officer on staff. School districts may instead hire a specially-trained retired policeman or policewoman, who meets certain requirements, in the schools.
  • New Jersey is one of a small minority of states requiring security drills. We take the additional step of requiring active shooter drills. A 2016 statute requires that, each year, law enforcement be present at one of the monthly drills to assess their effectiveness, and that school staff receive training annually.
  • In December 2016 a statute was enacted requiring certain school security measures in the design of new and existing buildings, including access to school buildings and grounds.
  • A January 2017 statute allows the state’s share of school construction costs through debt service or grants to be used for school security enhancements. It also authorizes the use of a district’s emergency reserve fund for security improvements.
  • July 2017 legislation created a New Jersey School Safety Specialist Academy and a School Safety Specialist Certification Program, and requires school districts to designate an administrator as the school safety specialist.
  • In June 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a package of bills promoting firearm safety. The legislation prevents gun possession by individuals who pose a significant threat to themselves or others, bans high-capacity firearm magazines, expands background checks, and prohibits possession of armor-piercing bullets.
  • A statewide $500 million bond proposal, “Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act,” passed on Nov. 6, 2018. The bond issue sets aside $350 million for expansion of career and technical education in the county vocational districts and school security upgrades in all school districts.

New Recommendations For 2018, the report published 15 new recommendations; they address planning, response and recovery; security personnel; communication, notification and detection; cybersecurity; physical security and building access; funding; and election day security.

PLANNING, RESPONSE AND RECOVERY

Recommendation 1:On an ongoing basis, school districts should evaluate emergency response procedures and training in light of developments in the security field and in collaboration with law enforcement, first responders, mental health professionals and other experts.

The committee’s first subject of discussion involved the approach to emergency responses.

The group discussed the run-hide-fight philosophy that is endorsed by some federal agencies, and the ALICE (which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training protocol adopted by approximately 80 school districts. These approaches address staff — and student — decision-making in the minutes between an initial attack and the arrival of first responders.

They are not universally endorsed, and many believe that strict lockdown procedures provide the best protection.

The committee believes that emergency response procedures — beyond state requirements — can only be determined locally and collaboratively.

Recommendation 2:Local school districts should ensure that a reunification site and an effective post-crisis plan — including accurate communication with parents and guardians and counseling and related services for students and staff — are part of the emergency plan.

The committee felt that reunification and post-crisis support required additional attention. Where do students and their parents or caregivers reunite following a crisis? According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the sooner students are reunited with parents or caregivers after a crisis, the less likely they are to exhibit traumatic stress. The process is especially important for younger children. Are counseling and other support services part of the district’s crisis plan? The committee considered research by FEMA and the National Association of School Psychologists and also received input from the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning.

Recommendation 3:When seeking guidance on school safety and security procedures, school districts should review the services available through the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning and other government agencies.

A goal of NJSBA’s security projects, in 2014 and in 2018, is to provide resources and information to school districts. A large number of private firms are engaged in school security consulting. They offer services such as threat assessment, emergency plan review and training. At the same time, there are several government agencies that provide similar services at no cost or low cost.

The committee recommends that school districts consider the services offered by the Department of Education’s Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning, county prosecutors’ office, county sheriffs’ departments, and other government agencies. We also believe that school districts should review services available through private firms that have knowledge of New Jersey law, regulation and school security requirements.

SECURITY PERSONNEL

Recommendations 4, 5 and 6:

  • Amend the law to allow more Class III applicants.
  • Provide information on types of law enforcement available to schools.
  • Ensure that the public has accurate information about the role of the SRO/SLEO when boards consider their placement in schools.

NJSBA’s 2014 report identified the school resource officer (SRO) as the preferred model for a law enforcement presence in schools. SROs are active-duty policemen and policewomen who receive special training in working with students. They serve an educational and counseling function, while also providing security.

But employment of an active duty police officer may be too costly for many school districts. Our 2014 report supported the creation of Class III Special Law Enforcement Officers — retired police officers who receive the same training as SROs. It’s a lower cost option for school districts.

Under the legislation, however, a Class III applicant cannot be retired for more than three years. There is concern that this will limit the pool of applicants. The committee recommends extending the maximum separation-from-service requirement to at least five years. (P.L. 2019, c. 51, enacted in March, has removed all separation-from-service restrictions.)

The decision on placement of law enforcement in schools has to be a local decision. However, there must be accurate information, so that the public has the proper context of the role of the law enforcement officer. District officials should clearly communicate the training requirements for the officers and their responsibilities in terms of security, education and counseling. Districts should also ensure the officers’ non-involvement in the enforcement of school discipline code. Such communication would help to allay fears that students would enter the juvenile justice system for breaking school rules.

COMMUNICATION, NOTIFICATION AND DETECTION

Recommendations 7, 8 and 9:

  • Promotion of 1-866-4SAFENJ and tips@njohsp.gov as school threat tip lines
  • Unobstructed line of communication with emergency responders
  • Monitor social media platforms

In its 2014 report, NJSBA’s School Security Task Force cited the effectiveness of anonymous tip lines in preventing incidents of school violence. The task force recommended that school districts explore the use of tip lines. And it called for establishment of a statewide system.

Last fall, state officials announced that reported threats to New Jersey schools in 2017-2018 were more than double the number for the previous year. The attorney general attributed part of the increase to greater vigilance on the part of students, educators and the community at-large.

Currently, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP), in coordination with the State Police, operates a tipline citizens can use to report suspicious activity. Following the Parkland tragedy, state officials emphasized the use of that reporting system for threats of school violence. The school security committee recommends that school districts and law enforcement regularly communicate about the importance of notifying authorities of potential threats. They should also emphasize the availability of the toll-free telephone tipline and the email address provided by the NJOHSP. Callers to the toll-free number do not have to identify themselves, according to the state attorney general’s office.

In its 2015 report, the state’s school security task force called for a dedicated channel for two-way radios so there would be unobstructed communication between school administrators and emergency responders and identification of the school staff member responsible for contacting the primary emergency response agency. The committee echoed these recommendations in its report.

The committee also made note of the Facebook postings that reportedly appeared prior to the Parkland tragedy, and recommends that school districts closely monitor their social media platforms.

CYBERSECURITY

Recommendation 10:

  • Implement NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) Cybersecurity Framework standards.
  • Provide training for all users on the avoidance of cyber-incidents.
  • Establish and evaluate continuity of operations and disaster recovery plans.
  • Ensure that board policies support cybersecurity efforts.

Because NJSBA’s 2014 report did not address the subject of cyber threats, the School Security Committee devoted part of its deliberations to the subject. How can districts prevent attacks on their communications and information systems? How can they protect financial data and personal information about students and staff?

On April 25, 2018, the committee heard a presentation by Brandon Pugh, then-NJSBA vice president for legislation and resolutions, who also served on the committee. Pugh is an editor for the Journal of Law and Cyber Warfare and heads his own security firm. He described various types of threats, pointed to recent incidents in New Jersey, and shared resources that provide information on short and long-term strategies to address cyberattacks, prevent future incidents and safeguard student safety and school district interests. Among those resources: the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell, the New Jersey State Police Cyber Crimes Unit, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools technical assistance center.

PHYSICAL SECURITY AND BUILDING ACCESS

Recommendations 11 and 12:

  • Coordinate video access with law enforcement, adhere to privacy rights.
  • Ensure compliance with P.L. 2016, c.79, building security requirements.
  • Establish visitor and access protocols, including key/entry card procedures and after-hours security.

For NJSBA’s 2014 report, the committee asked school officials to submit a “wish list” of security enhancements they would like to implement if they had the funding. The number-one item was closed circuit television systems. And indeed, there has been an increase in their use.

An issue has evolved over retention of, and access to, surveillance tapes. Under law in place at the time of the report, this must be determined through agreement between the school district and local police department. In March, the governor signed legislation (P.L. 2019, c. 47) requiring the state to develop a more uniform protocol regarding the retention of video footage and compliance with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In 2016, a new law established 28 security requirements for new and existing schools. These requirements reflect recommendations in the state task force’s 2015 report. They range from access control systems, to prohibiting students and staff from propping doors open, to the construction of secure vestibules.

The committee urges school districts to ensure that they are in compliance with these requirements. It also stresses the importance of schools having strict protocols for visitor entry, building access, and key distribution.

FUNDING

Recommendations 13 and 14:

  • Allow tax levy cap adjustments for increases in security expenditures
  • Encourage cooperation among schools, municipalities, counties, law enforcement and private entities to fund security enhancements

In a survey conducted for our 2014 report, school officials most frequently cited the 2 percent tax levy cap as a challenge in financing security upgrades.

Proposed legislation would exclude increases in certain security expenditures from the cap. The committee felt it was important to re-state its support for the proposal.

The 2018 report also references a $20 million school security grant program funded by the Burlington County Board of Freeholders, as well as school safety grants available to school districts that are members of the New Jersey Schools Insurance Group.

The committee stressed the importance of encouraging these types of initiatives.

ELECTION DAY SECURITY

Recommendation 15:

  • Collaboration between county clerks and schools in selecting polling places
  • Reimburse school districts for security procedures necessitated by the use of schools during elections

Since the Newtown tragedy, the wisdom of using schools as polling places has been subject to debate. Due to concerns about student safety, school districts may close on general and primary election days, even when it may not be in the interest of educational continuity.

However, county boards of election have final authority over the selection of polling places. And, in fact, schools are often the best situated and most accessible sites for elections.
The state task force’s 2015 report recommended increased collaboration among school districts, law enforcement and the counties in identifying voting facilities. The NJSBA committee agrees with that approach. We also support a concept, reflected in proposed legislation that would provide financial support to districts that have to implement increase security procedures to accommodate the use of schools as polling places.

NEXT STEP: Study of School Mental Health Services

Updating and reviewing security procedures must be the new reality — the new normal — for our schools.

The committee also believes that it is necessary to focus on another critical issue. In Parkland, Newtown and many other tragedies, the school shooters were troubled individuals. These incidents illustrate the importance of the effective delivery of mental health services in our schools and communities.

This year, NJSBA is undertaking a new project — a study of the relationship of mental health services and early intervention strategies on student health and wellness, school climate, and school security. The task force is expected to issue its final report by summer 2019.

The School Security Committee believes that the new NJSBA Task Force on the Delivery of Mental Health Services will continue the Association’s important work in the area of school safety and the advancement of student health and well-being.

Frank Belluscio III is deputy executive director and director of communications of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

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